• Sheila Harkins

When Gratitude Invites Itself to the Table of Grief

Updated: Sep 26, 2019


Kevin Harkins Feb 3, 1985--June 8, 2019

Grief is cloudy, with the sunlight of tender mercies occasionally breaking through.


It’s a swirling of emotions…the ache of all that will never be, the tears that wake you up in the middle of the night, and the unexpected laughter of the memory that you had forgotten. And, then the gasp as the sharp blade of reality strikes again.


It’s foggy, murky, and dark.


But even in darkness, light dawns.


This morning, the tiny flicker beckons, inviting me to put a name to it. It insists on being seen in the midst of the shadows. I know I need to stop and recognize it.


Gratefulness.


Thankfulness.


Gratitude that insists on being heard even in the sorrow that has engulfed me.


I am so thankful that God created Kevin.


Philip tickling Kevin soon after he came to live with us.


That the Maker of the world chose to perfectly design Kevin and to give him life. He chose to knit Kevin together with a generous heart, an inclination towards music, a love of animals, a talent of writing and the cutest cowlick in his hair. I’m very grateful that his birth mother chose to allow that little life to come into the world.




I’m thankful that almost thirty years ago Philadelphia Baptist Church chose to step out of their comfort zone and minister to South Park Housing project on the west side of Birmingham. I’m also thankful that Central Park Christian School was located nearby and gave scholarships to a couple of students from South Park Housing project. And, somehow, miraculously, God placed us in both of those communities that were on opposite sides of Birmingham so that we could come into contact with an adorable brown eyed seven-year-old named Kevin.




I’m thankful that God made it clear to us, a young, inexperienced couple, that He had called us to be Kevin’s forever parents. In calling us, He gave Kevin the most incredible extended family—grandparents who loved him dearly, cousins who adored him, and aunts and uncles who went out of their ways to demonstrate love to him. In choosing us, He gave Kevin amazing church families who loved Kevin so well. And, three schools that poured into his life—Central Park Christian, Shades Mountain Christian, and the International Community School in Bangkok.


And, he gave Kevin three younger siblings whose lives were shaped by having an older brother who had experienced more trauma in his first seven years of life than they could ever imagine. I’m grateful that God used Kevin to enlarge Maurissa, Shaina, and Isaac’s worldview and to shape caring and compassionate hearts in them.




I’m grateful Kevin was loved by so many.


I remember one time when Kevin was desperately in need of a new winter coat. And, a friend at church came up to us to say that during his time with the Lord that morning, God asked him to give us $100 for Kevin. What a special reminder that God loved Kevin and was involved in every little detail of his life.


I think of the amazing adoption party and celebration that Philadelphia Baptist Church gave to Kevin when the adoption was finalized when he was twelve. How can my heart not be filled with gratefulness at remembering the love in that room?



I’m so grateful for the experiences that Kevin had—to visit his grandparents in Korea and his grandparents in Zimbabwe. To see the hand of a kind and loving God at work around the world. I’m glad Kevin was able to move with us to Bangkok, Thailand and experience life here. He had an amazing youth group of older teens who took him out for lunch on Sundays and treated him as one of the gang.


I’m so grateful for all those who poured into his life. Those who kept him at their homes to offer us some respite when we needed it. I’m grateful for the many who gave money so that he could receive specialized care when we could no longer meet his needs. When I think back to the many stateside trips we made and the thousands of dollars that were needed monthly to provide for Kevin’s needs that we simply didn’t have it, I am reminded of what it was like to live by faith and see Kevin provided for again and again. We will never be able to remember all of the people that God used during those years or to express our thanks enough for their generosity. Every month, God showed his faithfulness through financial miracles during those years Kevin was at Jubilee Boy’s Ranch, Alpine Boy’s Ranch, and Three Springs of Blue Ridge.



Oh, how tempted I am to begin naming names of those who ministered to Kevin and loved him so well and gave so generously during those years. I can picture homes that we stayed in, transport that was provided, and checks that arrived. But, I know that I could never name everyone, so I will trust that God will affirm to each and every person the beauty and value of their investment in Kevin’s life.


We often told Kevin we didn’t know anyone who was loved as much as he was.


There were so many experiences in Kevin’s life that we knew were the hand of the Creator orchestrating events.


One of those miracles had to do with God prompting me to write a book of letters to Kevin. It was at a hard time in our relationship with him and we weren’t even sure where Kevin was in Washington State at that time. I wanted Philip to fly back to the States and take the book to Kevin. Philip told me that if God had given me the desire, then I should be the one to do it. The miracle includes a flight to Washington state, a sweet friend helping me, and an unexpected meeting with Kevin walking down the street in Leavenworth. Oh, the look of surprise on Kevin’s face! I was able to give Kevin the book and have several good visits with him in the few days that I was there.


Another involves Kevin walking down the street in Washington a couple of years later--a prodigal who was tired of his life. This time, God provided a police chaplain and a loving church to be the ones to provide for Kevin. This miracle includes my Dad, and a police station, and a reunion with Kevin’s birth mom who was at a good point in her life at that time. It was exactly what was needed for Kevin to come full circle and to begin to take some good steps forward in his life. We are thankful for the friends from Christ Church who surrounded Kevin at that time and provided so much emotional and practical support.


We’re grateful for each step Kevin was able to take to meet the goals he had in his life—getting his GED, getting his driver’s license, joining the army, graduating from boot camp, serving his country in Iraq, learning to drive heavy-haul trucks and eventually buying a house.




We’re thankful for how God extended our family when Kevin met and married Erica. Not only did we gain a daughter-in-law, but we also gained an adorable grandson (John/JR) whom we fell in love with immediately. Two years later, we gained another grandson (Joseph/LJ) who continues to add laughter to our days. Through Kevin’s marriage, we were to experience the blessing of in-laws who fully accepted Kevin and treated him as one of their own. That was a gift--especially since we live halfway around the world. We were thankful for the beautiful words that Erica’s nephew spoke at the funeral that described Kevin so well.


Kevin's family

Our two grandsons.

I'm thankful for the years we have had of seeing Kevin as a husband and a Dad and a brother to his young adult siblings.





I’m thankful that God has continued to offer us comfort through Kevin’s own words. As we have come across poems, e-mails, and journal entries, our hearts have been so grateful for those words that we still have. We discovered one of his fourth grade journal entries. Here is what Kevin wrote on September 15, 1995: “I like to think that I am in heaven and that I’m walking down the golden streets. And then I run into my relatives and I get to see Jesus.”


From Kevin's 4th Grade Journal


At the Wednesday night sharing time following Kevin’s passing, a friend encouraged us with the words from I Corinthians 13:4 in the ESV translation, “Love never ends.” Over and over the past six weeks, this theme has come up—that even though Kevin’s earthly life has ended, love has not ended. As we went through some of Kevin’s keepsakes, we were so surprised to discover a drawing Kevin made in November 1994. He drew a picture of a conversation between him and our dog, Shadow. And, in a red heart above their heads were the words “Love never ends.”


One of Kevin's drawings. Inside the red heard it says,"Love never ends."


At Kevin’s burial, Philip spoke these words about Kevin, “Kevin was a man who loved deeply and was deeply loved.”


At Kevin’s funeral, Erica’s nephew, David Martin, made these remarks about Kevin:

“And I also know he loves his family and friends with a passion, because he often expressed that to me when we were able to talk. I believe that Kevin was a man that was hurt at heart and desperately desired love, but I don’t think he really understood how much he was loved.”



Those of us who loved Kevin are grieving deeply. We are hurting and we don’t understand. We know that Reactive Attachment Disorder contributed to the part of Kevin that always had a hard time believing how loved he was. We know that PTSD from his time in the middle east contributed to his depression and feelings of desperation.


We hate that his life ended early. Daily, we encounter losses that we have because Kevin is no longer here on earth.


But just when the darkness seems like it is winning, light pierces again. Gratitude sits down next to me and reminds me that our lives and many other lives are richer because we knew and loved Philip Kevin Harkins. It reminds me that love never ends.


Because I work with teens, I know that grief is no respecter of age. Loss comes into the lives of everyone. Grief is not always about a loss of a life--it can also come with a loss of a friendship, a loss of something that gave you your identity or a loss of a way of life. It is my prayer for all of those who read these words and who find themselves in the darkness of grief, that you will be able to ask God to show you a glimmer of light in your darkness. I pray that you will have safe friends who can help you process your pain. Feel free to contact me if you need someone to listen or to pray for you.


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